Foundations for Life

April 30, 2017

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Preached by Canon Richard Lindley using 1 Corinthians 3.10-17 at Mattins on Sunday 30th April 2017, the Third of Easter.

Good foundations. If ever anyone wanted a demonstration of their importance, they have come to the right place.  Just go and look at the tilt in the south-east interior corner. If it weren’t for the heroic work of the famous diver William Walker at the beginning of the 20th century, that part of the Cathedral would have fallen down. There he was, working in the dark and sludge to replace the rotting timber foundations with concrete and bricks. Many of you will know the story: how the 13th century builders of that part of the Cathedral used beech logs as a foundation on top of the natural peat; how the whole mass became rotten over the centuries; and how a team of people supported William Walker as he inserted thousands of bags of concrete, bricks and blocks to underpin the subsiding outer walls.

The earlier Norman part of this Cathedral had also been built on timber, but of a more solid kind. John Crook, the Cathedral’s consultant archaeologist, tells how the Normans built on densely packed oak piles, driven vertically down into the gravel and silt. Even oak is somewhat vulnerable, of course, so let’s hope the oak survives!

‘I laid a foundation’, says St Paul, writing to the Christians of Corinth, and ‘that foundation is Jesus Christ’. So you probably expect me to talk about Jesus as a rock-solid foundation, and compare him with flimsy timber of some other philosophies and cultures.  Jesus Christ has certainly proved a reliable foundation for billions of Christians over two millennia. But I wonder if we can talk about a rock-solid foundation.

Good Friday reminded us of Jesus’s vulnerability, the weakness of his humanity. In Gethsemane he agonised over whether he could go through with what he was facing. And on Good Friday, that man Jesus proved uncertain, crucified at the behest of a fickle crowd and a weak politician, dying in agony, at one stage crying ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ – existential desolation if ever there was.

St Paul indeed laid the foundation that was Jesus, but it was a foundation that was far from solid.  In some ways, it was weak, and subject to decay. That was the nature of God’s giving of himself to humankind. St Paul himself, in his letter to the people of Philippi, said Christ Jesus had ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness . . . , humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death . . . .’

Now what of the building itself? ‘Someone else is building on [the foundation]’, St Paul writes. And ‘each builder must choose with care how to build on it’. He proposes some possible materials: gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay and straw. All these are either flammable, or would be damaged by fire: gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay and straw. He doesn’t list brick or stone.

Indeed, Paul goes on: ‘The work of each builder will become visible . . . because it will be revealed by fire, [which] will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward.  If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss . . . ’.  As John Crook has quipped to me: ‘a reminder to all architects to renew their professional indemnity’.

We’ve settled who the foundation is in this analogy – Jesus himself.  We know who laid the foundation – it’s St Paul.  But who are these builders, whose work is to be evaluated so drastically?  Paul says it’s someone other than himself. Indeed, Paul himself seldom stood still, usually on the move, establishing little Christian communities around the Mediterranean world. So it was the local leaders who were the builders.

Now builders of all kinds need to have their wits about them. Training is important, but also a willingness to improvise, and use the available materials. Two builders were working on a house. One was nailing timber, and kept reaching into his nail pouch for a nail. Every time he either hammered it in or threw it away. The other builder eventually asked him what he was doing. The first replied, ‘If I pull a nail out of my pouch and it’s pointing towards the house, then I nail it in. But if it’s pointing towards me, I throw it away because it’s faulty!’ The second builder couldn’t believe this and yelled, ‘You idiot! The nails pointing towards you aren’t faulty! They’re for the other side of the house!’ Training, skill and willingness to use the materials to hand.

It would be easy to say the modern equivalent of Paul’s church builders are the clergy. But it’s actually a job for everyone. We all share in encouraging and nurturing our comrades in their lives and in the development of their faith.  It is a common task, in both senses of the word ‘common’. We’re all builders, sharing the work of constructing and repairing. And, whatever Paul says about flammable materials, we can use whatever comes to hand, including wood and straw. We may even see ourselves as not-so-strong.

The Church must always be inclusive. 21st century churches, like 1st century churches, include a real mixture of members – stone, strong oak, not-so-strong beech, weaker straw and very weak hay. The mix of Jerusalem intellectuals, Galilean fishermen, women of doubtful character, Peter who couldn’t cope with challenge and Thomas who wanted proof. They all played a part in building and repairing, nurturing and encouraging.

Leadership qualities, strength of intellect or faith – all those are important. But so is weakness, which can appeal to others, and can help them feel strong when life is rough.  This is Jesus all over.  It was in weakness that his strength was visible, and when we keep Good Friday, as we did a fortnight ago, we celebrate his weakness.

Of course a Cathedral building needs strong foundations, and I’m not suggesting another HLF project to remove William Walker’s concrete and put back beech logs.  But the Church’s foundation is not unmitigated strength. It’s a hard message, but our Christian faith was built upon strength shown through weakness. If it weren’t for the genuineness and appeal of Jesus’s vulnerability, there would be no celebration at Easter. There is scope in our weakness as well as our strengths for demonstrating the love of Christ. Together we build a Christian community like those St Paul started on the Jesus Christ foundation. Easter celebrates our discovery that the vulnerability of love wins victory; that in weakness there is eternal life.